Monday, May 30, 2011

In memoriam

One of the people who has had a profound and lasting impact on my life is someone I have never met. In one of the extant letters of hers, she signed her name as Jehanne, and she was burned at the stake as a heretic 580 years ago today in a square in Rouen. Better known as Joan of Arc, she was nineteen years old when she was martyred.

Not, of course, that "martyred" is the word we are supposed to use to describe what happened to her. When the Church finally got around to canonizing Joan in 1920, (the process nearly being derailed a number of times, including by a rather vigorous advocatus diaboli who was rather concerned over whether Joan's squire might have seen her naked breasts when he was arming her, or treating the wounds she suffered in battle) she was entered into the calendar of saints as "virgin" not as "martyr" (the only two paths to sainthood for women.)

It was the Church, you see, that burned her.

Joan has been my favorite saint for as long as I can remember. Brave, articulate, and fierce, she was a girl with a sword who got things done - the kind of girl I wanted to be. But her story was one I knew so well that the details ran together. Then, at the beginning of my career in legal academia, I wrote an article called "Lex and the City" (pseudonymously as Gil Grantmore, and yes, for those of you bored completists out there, I'm sure you can find it on the internet) about the first amendment right to freedom of speech inherent in personal dress. It was then I discovered that the heresy that Joan had been burned for was wearing men's clothing.

Seriously. After a trial that went on for months, wherein Joan was assaulted, poisoned, threatened with more explicit torture, was forced - illegally - to act as her own advocate while being questioned by upwards of 50 members of the Church hierarchy at once, the only heresy they could find her guilty of was that of wearing pants. I didn't realize it at the time, but my dissertation was born in that moment.

Once I began researching her more seriously, spending months, and then years reading the transcripts of all of her trials - The Trial of Condemnation, the Trial of Rehabilitation (which cleared her of all charges, twenty-three years too late), and the Trial of Canonization - I became more and more impressed with her bravery and grace. And I understood, more and more, why this young women - articulate, intelligent, a girl with a sword who got things done - struck such terror in those in power.

So much terror that when the English captured her, the French abandoned her to death, rather than paying a ransom, such as was commonly done for prisoners of war of her status. So much terror that, aside from housing her in a men's military prison, rather than in a women's ecclesiastical one, her interrogators, theoretically men of the Church, asked her if she might lose her powers if she lost her virginity. Rape was a weapon, even then. So much terror that they burned her alive.

If you want to read more about her, I highly recommend Joan of Arc: Her Story by Regine Pernoud, one of the greats of Jehannine scholarship. Or George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan. All of the best lines truly are hers.


  1. This makes me want to read about her. Admittedly, I don't know much about Joan of Arc, but I always loved her bravery and strength. I'm adding that book by Pernoud to my amazon wishlist.

    For some reason, this entry reminded me of Anne Hutchinson. While they lived in different times, both women were feared by men and those religious figures in power. Both stood for themselves during their trials. Both were very, very smart and strong.

    Great post. ~Ali

  2. "I wish that Joan of Arc wouldn’t hang around the park
    Pronouncing that she won’t get burned again
    Her armour’s very shiny and her message is divine
    But I wish she’d take a day off now and then

    She said it clears your head when you come back from the dead
    With your sword as sharp as anything that cuts
    And to prove it she bisected three young tourists from Utrecht
    Which rapidly displayed a lot of guts (...)"

    Neil Gaiman, "The problem with the saints".

  3. Ali - Anne Hutchinson was amazing also. For quite some time, speaking about the holy was one of the most dangerous thing a woman could do.

    Marcos - it will probably not surprise you to know I have the lyrics to "The Problem With Saints" taped to my wall. I love it!

  4. I thought you might know it. Just checking.

    By the way, what's your favourite Joan of Arc movie? I have never seen Carl Dreyer's "La passion de Jeanne d'Arc", so my vote goes to Bresson's "Procès de Jeanne d'Arc". I recall the feeling of awe when I heard the actual words from her trial.

    But every time I think of the charachter, the face I remember is Ingrid Bergman's. I must have watched that Victor Fleming flick dozens of times on TV when I was a kid.

  5. Kat - great post. I've long been fascinated by Joan of Arc. What would you recommend for those of us who have read the Pernoud and the Shaw?

    Marcos - Have you seen Jacques Rivette's version? It's not as compressed and tense as the Dreyer and Bresson versions, but it tries capture more of her life. An interesting film, if you haven't seen it.

  6. Hektor: Thanks. As for recommendations, if you can get ahold of the trial transcripts, those are extraordinary (and translated into English, if you don't want to brave Latin or Middle French). Pernoud did other books on Joan, and I recommend them all. If you don't mind reading academic essays, Bonnie Wheeler has put together a couple of great collections. And Marina Warner's book has some pieces I disagree with, but is a foundational text.

    Marcos: I am a poor person to ask for film recommendations, so the best I would say is to take Hektor's advice. But yes, I agree - Bergman as Joan is iconic.

  7. Kat: Thanks for the recommendations. Latin is beyond me, but I could attempt the French.

    Marcos: I would also recommend the Dreyer film. It's well worth seeing and readily available.